Gymtimidation Is Real, Here’s How to Overcome It

by Brittany Risher
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Gymtimidation Is Real, Here’s How to Overcome It

For many people, one of the biggest hurdles they’ll face on their fitness journey is actually stepping foot in a gym. Researchers have even studied this phenomenon. “We found that people who didn’t feel they were good at exercise or who were afraid of others seeing them exercise were more likely to avoid the gym,” says Cheri A. Levinson, PhD, whose 2013 study examined fear and anxiety related to social exercise.

The good news is that there are ways to manage that intimidation and start to feel comfortable at the gym. Follow these expert steps to make the gym a place where you feel like you belong (because you do).

1. DON’T OVERTHINK IT

Our insecurities come from caring too much about what others think of us. “People see themselves as too awkward, too weak, too skinny, too fat and too inexperienced, to name a few,” says Kevin Swan, a personal trainer at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers in New York City. “So they think everyone will be watching them and laughing at them, and that’s just too scary a thought” to enter the gym.

But don’t let your thoughts rule your life and keep you from trying new things. Realize that everyone has a weakness — not just you. “You go to work on making yourself better and continuing to improve once you do,” Swan says.

As for what everyone else is thinking, they most likely aren’t thinking about you because they’re too busy focusing on their own issues. “Nobody cares where you’re starting from or what you can and can’t do,” Swan says. “Get out of your head and stop overthinking things.”

2. FIND YOUR BEST GYM

Before you even consider joining a gym, do some research. “Figure out what route you want to take — strength training, running, boxing, etc.,” says Sal Butler, an Equinox Tier X coach. Read online reviews, and talk to friends, family or co-workers to figure out what features appeal to you.

Before landing on a specific gym, take a tour or request a day pass so you can get a feel for the place, people and overall layout. “If you don’t like the style, people or vibe you get when you walk in the door, you won’t feel comfortable working out there,” says Josh Fly, fitness director at the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers.

3. PICK THE RIGHT PROGRAM

If you’re not used to the gym, haven’t really lifted weights or don’t know the first thing about the machines, the entire experience may seem foreign. The list of questions we have about getting in shape and navigating the gym seems endless when you’re starting out. “And once we get in our minds that there’s so much to learn, it often seems too intimidating to even start,” Swan says. This is when a trainer, friend or group environment come into play. Here are three options for getting started:

  • Hire a trainer. “A trainer provides you with three things that are a critical part of any successful exercise program: knowledge, encouragement and accountability,” Swan says. When you have a trainer, he or she will help you with form and map out a plan to efficiently and effectively move toward your goals. Also, your trainer will  hold you accountable, which means you’ll be more consistent with your efforts.
  • Go with a friend. A friend can provide support and accountability like a trainer. Just be sure to pick the right friend. You want someone who will help you achieve your goals, rather than someone who will only focus on themselves or, worse, try to get you to go after their goals, too.
  • Attend group classes. Classes offer several benefits: You often aren’t the only new person so you can feel more at ease. You can meet new people who share a similar mindset. You’ll have a instructor cheering you on — and you may find the playlist makes it more fun.

4. SEEK HELP

If you’re still anxious and it’s causing you distress, you may want to see someone. “It’s a pretty common fear, and one that can be helped,” Levinson says. She recommends looking for a psychologist or therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy  or who uses exposure therapy. Explain that you have fears around exercise, and ask whether he or she has experience helping others in your situation.

Using exposure therapy, you’ll slowly work through your fears. You may begin by driving to the gym and simply going home, then going to the gym in workout clothes and walking around but not exercising. Finally you might go and run on a treadmill or lift weights, Levinson explains. “You’ll see progress in three or four sessions,” she says.

Once you realize that you’re not alone in this and start going regularly, you’ll likely find that you can’t imagine not going to the gym. Go ahead and give it a try!


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  • reality2017

    The best thing is learn to tolerate “gymtimidation” and focus on why one is there. Attire should not be designed to attract attention. Yes, if the girl (or guy for that matter) needs the “4X” shirt or pants, wear them. Yoga pants are for yoga, for example. Dress for the workout, not to attract dates. (either gender). Guys that are fat should not be wearing string tanks (back hair anyone?) or any girl wearing plus size leggings. (why leggings come is plus sized is beyond me) It’s like strong body odor.

    • Vix

      People like you, who make comments like this, are the exact reason that a lot of the people who need to be in the gym the most avoid it.

      Who gives a fuck what someone is wearing?! Do you and mind your own business. Just because someone is overweight doesn’t mean you get to dictate what they wear; oddly enough, they don’t exist to please your senses.

    • kindcounsel

      No, the best thing is NOT to tolerate discrimination or bullying of any kind. How about this? What if we encouraged people? What if we were supportive of them? Kind to them on their journey to getting healthy? Most people who take shots at other people do so because they are insecure themselves in some way, thus the need to put someone else down. Working on your own insecurities works much better than gossip or extreme possibly vicious stereotyping (4x, hairy backs, yoga pants cannot be worn by, thongs comment, etc). I’m not sure how old you are, but our entire educational system is trying to stop this to reduce violence. I don’t believe in sugar coating the truth, or the reality of life, or that being politically correct all the time is even possible, but do not confuse yourself with someone who is mature when you want to promote viciousness towards anyone as normal just to act superior when the best choice would be is either a) live and let live, be quiet and let people improve their lives in peace or b) evolve from grammar school thinking and actually change to be helpful to another human being by being sincerely friendly and encouraging after you have had some real soul searching, good counsel, maybe counseling,maybe different influences and really feel better about yourself so you don’t need to put anyone else down or want to normalize a culture that does. You have a great opportunity to share your strengths with others and allow them to help you where maybe they are a little stronger.Best of everything in your journey and recovery! One saying I like? High tides raise all ships, meaning when one does well, we all do well. Be happy when someone is doing well or better and support them, don’t drag them down, you’re better than that:)

      • robinbishop34

        Just because you’re fat and ugly doesn’t mean you have a monopoly on moral virtue.

        • kindcounsel

          Robin, you sound five years old. This proves the point that you personally really are willing to be vicious to anyone,sight unseen, who challenges the idea that its ok to be rotten to other people rather than choosing to be helpful. The article is addressing bullying,which you just tried to do, so rather than thinking about that potential good change, to help people become healthier rather than bullying them and reducing the bullying environment, you want to fight to keep it tense and intimidate and make the very people who would so benefit by being in the gym out of it because of your insecurities? I’m a nurse, and I see people in life and death struggles every day, and if it’s people like you keeping them out of the gym? Which do you think is more important? Aren’t you really kind of evil? I agree that moral charachter is definitely individual, completely, regargless of appearance or weight.However, when you argue in favor of being the mean girl? It doesn’t matter what you look like, does it? Your just mean and unhappy and call people names to try deflect the simple thought of, wow, what if I used that energy to help rather than hurt people? Whoever we are? People might live longer, have less cancer, have their mom or dad or son or daughter around longer to take care of them.Or is someone’s need to name call or look down at someone just so much more important than that?

          • LEANNE MARIE

            WISH more ppl were like you. If I ever have to go to a hospital, I hope I get a kind nurse like you. I joined a gym, hired a personal trainer, and ppl there are telling me how beautiful I am…not because of my size, but for my personality. Thank God for kind, friendly, outgoing ppl. God bless you.

          • kindcounsel

            AWESOME! How kind of YOU! and isn’t it fun? I mean, yes there are some hard days, but the music is fun, and how I feel energy is fun, but feeling stronger, healthier,less stress, better sleep. Shaking off negativity and moving into the light and hanging around secure positive people filled with kindness and God’s love and adding whatever each of us can ourselves to that love to encourage one another, strengthen one another. Sounds good to me! Hey, I had hernia surgery about 3 weeks ago, and I had to be super careful, but I did over 80 squats today.Whoo Hoo! Lol!

          • LEANNE MARIE

            WAY TO GO!!! KEEP UP THE EXCELLENT WORK AND KIND ENCOURAGEMENT TO ALL!!!

          • Gigi

            This is just a typical mean girl who failed to grow up. Or she is so self absorbed she fails to realize she is probably delusional and in need of reality check not related to a mirror.

          • kindcounsel

            Ok, so help think this out to solve the problem. Is the mirror working? I think the answer is no because it is an endless abyss that is never satisfied for that person because they are not getting enough value about themselves from their other aspects. An insecurity that is constant, isolationist, lonely, where even your friends can pounce on you at any minute, victims who victimize, and maybe we have been talking about women’s relationships. What about men and how they value us and we value them and how they value each other? This mentions gymtimidation but it’s a chance for everyone to slow down, think, and choose something better, and not be vicious just because that’s who you have been hanging around with. Who has the courage to be the real leader for something good? Go on then, be the change!

    • JessEca Brown

      It’s comments like yours that keep people like me from going to the gym. You are the “gymtimidator”! You are the judgemental bitch that keeps us insecure fat people from going to the gym! So what if the fat guy wants to wear a string tank (hairy back or not) it gets hot working out! I am exactly that fat woman who wore the 4x tshirt and leggings because that’s what I felt most comfortable in. I felt that’s what would hide me best from judgemental asses like yourself yet be comfortable and cool enough to wear, I could work out my hardest without passing out from heat stroke. Let’s not also forget to mention when you’re bigger shorts tend to “ride up” in-between your legs and that’s embarrassing so leggings are your only other option besides sweatpants and like I’ve already said it gets hot when your pushing yourself as hard as you can. So next time you go to the gym remember it’s not a fashion show and mind your own god damn business.

      • JessEca Brown

        In advance I am not sorry for this comment nor will I be sorry. I am a grown woman and take full responsibility for my comment.

    • Ciara A

      You are what this article is about. Im about 300lbs and wore bright blue leggings yesterday at the gym. Why? Because they motivated me to go to the gym and looked cute. Focus on your workout and your crappy attitude, not on my leggings.

      • Gigi

        Ciara A, I couldn’t agree more with you. Those who judge so harshly should look inside themselves. If you feel cute in your work out gear and it makes you want to go work out then you should , by all means wear it !! Getting out the door and going is the first major step, next to loving yourself. : )

      • JessEca Brown

        You go girl! I’m sure you did look cute too!

    • Sierra395

      Who the hell has time to sit at the gym and observe what people are wearing? People should wear whatever gets them through the 2+ hours they spend sweating and torturing themselves. If 3x fluorescent leggings are your thing, go for it. If the fat guy with the hairy back wants to sweat and go shirtless, who gives a rat’s a**?! Reality2017: I imagine you’re one of the pieces of poo who sit on machines, tagging your location on Facebook, and texting your shallow friends about how you’re surrounded by gross, sweaty, bodies in spandex. By now, I’ve passed you three times wondering when you’re going to put your phone down, and get your soft, lazy a** off of the last machine I need to hit so that I can go home. Guess what? You’re wasting mine, plus-size legging girl’s, and hairy back guy’s time. Get your shallow a** out of our way.

      • Newreader

        Yas. Couldn’t be said in any better way

      • Brwinnie

        Thanks! That’s exactly what I was thinking! Walk a runway, bitch, not a treadmill! I go to the gym to get ME where I need to be, not to be in a fashion show.

    • Tracy Binol

      Why do you think there should be rules for what people (heavy people) wear at the gym? The fact that they are there is good enough! Whatever they wear is their business, not yours. I hate it when I feel like, people like you might be judging me on what I wear! Sometimes I wonder why people are wearing their street clothes at the gym, but I also think whatever they wear good for them! I am sure everyone has a reason for what they are wearing and most of the time it might be because they are afraid of being judged by people. What the hell “yoga pants are for yoga” and “why legging come in plus sized is beyond me – it’s like strong body odor”! This is so-so offensive! it’s none of your business!

    • Baylor S

      I’m sure that @reality2017:disqus IS intimidated. That’s why the comments. Don’t even waste the energy bashing them as whomever they are only created the fake account to piss people off. I mean seriously…

  • Special K

    You missed the most obvious and important factor here – no one else is paying attention to anyone else. Everyone else in the gym is there for a reason, maybe it’s to focus on a workout, maybe to try to pick up other people, maybe something else, but no one goes to the gym looking to silently mock others. Most people are focused on themselves and probably don’t even know you are there. It’s no different than self consciousness in any other situation – we almost always overrated how much attention people are paying to *us*.

  • AsilNotsgnivil

    One reason that “gymtimidation” is an issue is evident in the images that you always choose images of where people want to be, not in transition. The very thing that intimidates us in the gym, disheartens us on MFP. Most people using this app aren’t where they want to be. Some of us will never be skinny and young, but we can be healthy. Please show that.

  • davedave12

    Here’s how I got over it. I waited until I was 54 years old. At that age I had no need to feel cool or be intimidated by younger people who have been working out for 20 years. Of course, prior to going to the gym I spent 30 years on the couch getting fat. So I don’t recommend my method. A personal trainer was very helpful. It was expensive, but cheaper than a heart attack. There are gym’s that cost 10 or 20 per month. My gym required a 1 year contract for a PT. I think 6 months would have been plenty. — at the gym you are not competing with anyone, just trying to improve yourself.

    • georgesgirl65

      Yes, being older certainly helps! We don’t care so much about the opinions of others so much, it makes things so much easier!

  • Gigi

    I find it absolutely rude for women to post such hateful statements about each other on a blog where people go in an attempt to better themselves. “Gymtimidation” is a reality as proven by some of the nasty statements made in this feed. I have a suggestion to those who find themselves so perfect, why not introduce yourself to those you find unacceptable in yoga pants or whatever at the gym and offer them your invaluable insight an opinion. Or just hide behind your keyboard and reveal your own unattractive features to the internet?

  • Sierra395

    I feel frustrated when my friends and family tell me they’re too intimidated to set foot in a gym. I’ve held a membership since 2003. Over the years, I’ve been unhealthy and overweight, to fit, and in excellent shape. I was intimidated when I first joined, but I soon learned no one was mocking me, or judging me. I put my earbuds in, and put as much strength and energy into my workout that I can give that day. I watch the bodybuilders and athletic-types, and study their routines, and draw inspiration for always improving my form, and my routines. Go to the gym with a positive attitude about changing yourself for the better, and you’ll wonder why you were ever intimidated to start with. If you’re insecure about equipment–don’t be! Just be sure to use proper form to avoid injury (ask employees for help, if you’re unsure). Drink tons of water to keep your endurance up. Wear whatever makes you comfortable enough to get you through your hard work. The gym is the place to wear fun, bright, loud spandex pants you can’t wear to work! Pick late Friday evening as your start date. The gym is quiet, and only the serious people are there working out. They aren’t there to socialize, or to impress. They’re simply training. I use Friday as my “try something new” day because most of the weights and equipment aren’t being used, and I can take my time, and use proper form. Soon, you’ll be a familiar face, and may even make a buddy or two. After you become a “regular”, you’ll sympathize with the new members who look lost, and hope they too aren’t too intimidated to return. Remember: everyone there was once a “newbie” too.

  • georgesgirl65

    I’m sad that even in this forum we have people who are intimidating us into not going to the gym. I thought people would be way more supportive, why are you on this site if you aren’t?

  • Baylor S

    Don’t sweat the meatheads. They are worried about what you think of them. Come in with a friend. Do internet research or talk to the people who run the gym and learn the correct ways to lift. Stretch, stretch, stretch! Thousands of healthy recipes on the ‘net. Find what works and what doesn’t. When you see a meathead…. look them up and down, smile, and get back to lifting 🙂 works EVERYTIME!

  • Gymtimidation

    Except…it’s not always in your head. I went to a gym with my friend once. We were the only two people on the weight machines. I stopped lifting to rest a bit and chatted with my friend because there wasn’t anyone around waiting. Then a guy saw us and walked straight up to us and asked us to hurry up. I did as he grumbled the whole time. We moved on and he proceeded to follow us and wait behind every machine we were on. Even though they were all open. So yeah, it’s not always in your head. I certainly didn’t buy the membership my friend initially tried to get me on. I didn’t go back after that.